Privacy check: What Web directories know about you

Online directories let people discover a scary amount of private information about you simply by entering your name, location, and/or telephone number in their search boxes.

Dennis O'Reilly Former CNET contributor
Dennis O'Reilly began writing about workplace technology as an editor for Ziff-Davis' Computer Select, back when CDs were new-fangled, and IBM's PC XT was wowing the crowds at Comdex. He spent more than seven years running PC World's award-winning Here's How section, beginning in 2000. O'Reilly has written about everything from web search to PC security to Microsoft Excel customizations. Along with designing, building, and managing several different web sites, Dennis created the Travel Reference Library, a database of travel guidebook reviews that was converted to the web in 1996 and operated through 2000.
Dennis O'Reilly
5 min read

On the Web, your life is an open book. Typing a name or telephone number into one of the many free online directories may disclose a person's age, previous cities of residence, and the names of close relatives.

If you're willing to pay a few dollars, you may be able to find the person's date of birth, current and past addresses, photos, videos, estimated annual income, the value of their residence, and social network profiles (although much of this information is available for free as well). Fee-based services also check public records for the person's criminal and civil cases, liens, aliases, lawsuits, and bankruptcies.

There are plenty of legitimate reasons for looking that deeply into someone's background, including pre-employment checks and vetting potential business partners. Rather than pay for the information, I decided to see what I could find out about myself and others by searching five free Web people-search services: PhoneNumber.com, MyLife, 123people.com, Intelius, and Spokeo.

This post looks at the results of my searches of the first two of these Web directories; tomorrow I'll describe what I found in the other three directories, and later this week, I'll examine ways to manage and control your personal information on the Web.

There was plenty of information about me in these directories, but a great amount of the data in their entries for me was outdated or just plain wrong. And while most Web directories let you request that your personal data be removed from their databases, there's no guarantee the services won't simply collect the information all over again in the future--at least until there's a "do not collect" registry similar to the Federal Trade Commission's Do Not Call registry.

Search by name, phone number, or address
Searching my name at PhoneNumber.com returned 82 entries, none of them me. But my name did appear when I searched my home phone number on the site's reverse-phone-lookup page. And both my name and my wife's name were returned when I entered our home address on the site (with no phone number).

PhoneNumber.com doesn't offer fee-based people-information services, but the site is loaded with ads, including a full-screen flash animation that Firefox blocked. Make sure you have your browser's pop-up blocker activated before you visit PhoneNumber.com. Firefox blocked several pop-ups when I tested the site, and I believe at least one pop-up ad got through the browser's ad defense.

Apart from the directory's advertisement overload, PhoneNumber.com didn't reveal much about me that I wouldn't expect to find in a public directory, particularly when compared with the degree of personal information disclosed by the other free online directories I tested.

Trade your private info for "free" access?
One of the prevalent advertisers on PhoneNumber.com is MyLife, which is most noteworthy for its many attempts to convince you to give up your personal information in exchange for access to everyone else's personal information. The site's first pop-up appears almost immediately, prompting you to register by entering your gender, name, e-mail address, date of birth, and ZIP code.

MyLife free-registration pop-up window
MyLife immediately prompts you to join the service by supplying your personal information, which it will share with other members and "third-party co-marketers." screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

In exchange, the service offers to let you "control your profile and craft your online image," according to the MyLife Terms and Conditions page. The site's terms also state that "you are licensing to MyLife.com and our third-party service providers any 'content' you provide through or to MyLife.com and the service they offer."

MyLife has the right to "modify, display, distribute, and create new material using such content on MyLife.com's sites for the promotion and marketing of our services and the operation of our system." In other words, MyLife owns whatever information you share with the site.

The MyLife Privacy Policy states that MyLife operates nine other people-directory sites. Anyone over the age of 12 can sign up for a MyLife site, and while the site encourages you to surrender your personal information almost immediately, its privacy policy warns against sharing too much.

Just a few paragraphs earlier in the privacy policy, however, the company readily admits that it will use and share the information you provide with unnamed third parties. MyLife and its "partners" will also send you e-mail and postal mail unless you specifically opt out. The site offers to search your contact list and send everyone in it an invitation to join MyLife.

Your personally identifiable information will be shared with "third-party co-marketing partners," according to the privacy policy, although MyLife claims it doesn't share personally identifiable information with other members or nonpartner third parties without your consent. MyLife says it will notify you of the request and let you accept or decline it.

MyLife offers free access to information, photos, and profiles of everyone else in the site's directories. You can also find out who is searching for you and what sites your contacts are visiting, according to the service. It isn't clear whether your contacts know they're sharing their Web history.

Without registering, the site showed my name, age, city, partial phone number, two previous cities of residence, and the names and ages of six "friends & family." These included four close relatives and two strangers. The site promised to reveal my full address and telephone number to anyone who registers.

The directory's home page offers to reveal "who's looking for you" for free, but when you enter a name, age, and ZIP code, you're prompted to provide your e-mail address and date of birth before you're able to view any of the information. In my book, exchanging that personal information for the right to view the data makes the transaction anything but free.

There's a lot to dislike about this site, not least of which is the pop-up that appears when you try to leave--one final desperate attempt to get you to supply its privacy-busting directories with your personal information. Adding insult to injury, when you attempt to remove your personal information from the site, it opens a form requesting even more information about you.

MyLife pop-up plea for your data appears when you attempt to leave the site
MyLife's pop-up warning appears when you attempt to navigate away from the directory, trying one last time to coax you into providing your private information. screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

MyLife clearly can't be trusted with my personal information, but to request that it be removed, I must supply the site with even more personal information. What's wrong with this picture? In fact, it may do no good to request that the information be removed, because the site could simply collect it again from whatever public source it tapped for it in the first place. (I'll discuss this conundrum in more detail later this week in a post on Web reputation-protection services.)

Tomorrow: Delving into the free directories at 123people.com, Intelius, and Spokeo.